Years ago, my friend Donna and I, traveled to Las Vegas together with our friend Joy. Just hours before we were to board our return flight to Chicago, I became ill and the ladies took me to the local hospital where the doctors promptly admitted me.
Neither Donna nor Joy wanted to leave me behind, but knowing my medical situation, I insisted that they catch their flight back to home and I would follow once my condition stabilized and I was cleared to fly again. Almost seven weeks later, we met for lunch the day after my return.
Fast forward to 2020. Donna and I, now friends of more than fifty years are planning a “trip of a lifetime” to Egypt. Twenty-one glorious days exploring the mysteries of the pyramids in Cairo, traveling to Aswan by luxury train, cruising the Nile to the massive temples in city of Luxor, hot air ballooning at sunrise over the Red Sea in Hurgada and walking amongst the academic, artistic and cultural treasures of the ancient city of Alexandria. Wow! Egypt, the cradle of civilization. Truly the trip of a lifetime! We looked forward to escaping the brutality of a Chicago winter during the month of February.
Donna, who was a world traveler, had already visited five of the seven continents. Now, together, we were going to be experiencing the mysteries of EGYPT!
This activity packed trip was to include visits to temples, castles, museums and some of the more than 200 pyramids that cut across the Egyptian historical landscape. We were both very excited and this time Donna said she would stay with me if I became ill this time “as long as it took.”
When our transportation picked Donna up, she was moving more slowly than usual. This was caused by the pain from all the fractures she’d sustained decades ago in a head-on crash in Scotland. The subsequent surgeries that attempted to repair her broken body were taking a toll. She was in so much pain, it took her an inordinate amount of time to get to the gate at O’Hare.
I noticed that she also had a slight, dry cough. We didn’t think much of it because little had been mentioned in American media about COVID-19 in these early February days.
When we arrived in Vienna to change planes more than 30% of the passengers there were wearing masks. I remember us discussing how strange it looked to see people of all ages and sizes fashionably attired in masks of a full rainbow spectrum of colors and styles ranging from simple surgical masks, to N-95 to what appeared to be gas masks.
Some 18 hours after leaving Chicago, we arrived at the bustling but welcoming Cairo International Airport, we spent another two and a half hours navigating the requisite bureaucratic encounters of immigration and customs.
Like the other twenty-two others traveling with us, we were exhausted, but before we could check into our hotel, there was some sightseeing scheduled first before we could settle into this land of Cleopatra, Nefertiti, mystical wonder and lore.
We knew very aspect of this trip was beautiful, exciting, and richly steeped in ancient culture and thousands of years of history. But, at the same time because it included churches, mosques, synagogues, castles and museums along with the Great and “not so great” Pyramids. we knew it would be exhausting.
It was during this period that I noticed Donna’s breathing seemed labored and her coughs more frequent. In addition, at this point, her pain had increased to the point that she could no longer rely on her cane alone. She was using a wheelchair.
After several exhausting days in Cairo, we boarded a luxury train for an overnight journey to the southern part of the country, the culturally rich Nubian region centered in the city of Aswan. There were visits to authentic Nubian villages, museums, temples and of course the expansive Aswan Dam. During most of these excursions, Donna slept peacefully on the bus because of the amount of walking involved. It was in Aswan that I noticed that she was coughing so much more. The increase in her coughing was alarming for my own health concerns. She rarely left the tour bus during this leg of the trip but she remained in good spirits.
After a few days and nights experiencing Nubia, we boarded a ship for an uneventful three-day cruise up the Nile River to the mystical city of Luxor. Glad to be back on dry land, we arrived there looking forward all its’ sites and particularly to the temples honoring pharaohs and queens, most unknown to the western world. Our time in Luxor concluded on Saturday evening.
The backdrop of our carriage ride around the city was a captivating light show.
As we returned to our room Donna promptly climbed into bed because we were scheduled to depart early, 7AM, for some much needed relaxation in the seaside resort city of Hurgada on the Red Sea. Through the night, I could hear her labored breathing became louder.
She slept most of the hours-long bus trip between Luxor and Hurgada while her coughs became more frequent and her breathing became even more audible. It was Sunday when we arrived at our resort late in the afternoon. We were both exhausted and proceeded directly to our room. Of course, at this stage of our visit, Donna was exclusively relegated to her wheelchair.
After some light unpacking, Donna promptly climbed into bed. I suggested that we order room service rather than join the group in the dining room. I remember she ordered spaghetti and meat sauce while I ordered a veggie pizza. It arrived rather quickly. Because I was starving, I wanted to dig in immediately, so I asked if she was ready to eat. She was already climbing into her bed and replied: “You go ahead, I’ll eat later”, She drifted off to sleep.
At this point her breathing was disturbingly audible between her frequent coughs. It sounded like a wheezing accordion as it competed with the CNN International channel on the TV.
Sometime during the night, Donna made her way to the bathroom. She called for me to help her. She was having some serious gastrointestinal problems. Although she said she was nauseated, she did not throw up. I noticed that she had not eaten her spaghetti either. We spent about a few hours in the bathroom as she tried desperately to get herself together.
When she felt better, she promptly returned to her bed and went to sleep coughing and wheezing, wheezing and coughing throughout the balance of the night. The rattling in her chest was becoming louder and louder, making it difficult to drift off to sleep.
As the new day dawned, I showered and prepared myself for the activities of Monday. I woke Donna to see if she was feeling up to at least 6 hours of intense activities ranging from hot air ballooning, a mini safari bookending yet a few more museums and souvenir shopping. She told me she was much too tired after having been up most of the night. Before leaving the room to start my day, I noticed her untouched food and set the tray outside the room for pickup.
As the group congregated in the lobby to launch our day, they all asked where Donna was. It was not unusual for our fellow travelers to skip a day of touring. After all, about three days into the trip, Janet passed out while we were visiting a temple in Cairo. Several in the group became ill as we were leaving Cairo for Aswan.
And Dave was out of commission for almost a week in Aswan and Luxor.
Sometime during the day I received a text from Joy asking how we were enjoying our Middle Eastern voyage. I explained that we were enjoying ourselves but had just confided in one another that we were both exhausted and wanted to return to Chicago already. I shared that Donna was sleeping a lot and I was concerned. But we both shrugged it off because the days were long, the activities were strenuous and we were both “mature” and out of shape.
When I returned to our room, I found Donna again sleeping, but this time her breathing was extremely labored and the coughing had dramatically increased.
Tuesday morning, Donna decided not to go to the dining room for breakfast. Everyone asked about her. I explained that she was not feeling well and would not be joining us because she was under the weather. A nurse practitioner and a nurse along with, Sandy, our Chicago tour organizer and Ahmed, our Egyptian guide, and about five others converged on our room to see about Donna.
The medical professionals checked her breathing and pulse. Apparently not content with what they were hearing, they insisted that a physician be called to our room. Donna mustered all her strength to resist. She convinced us that she really did not need to see a doctor at that time. We listened to her and one by one left the room on our way to visit more temples and pyramids.
At the end of another fully exhausting day, I returned to the room to find Donna still in bed and sleeping. She didn’t even hear me as I unintentionally dropped various bottles and cans of hair spray, body gel and other items to the floor.
Fearing I had disturbed her, I tiptoed out of the room and made my way to the dining room. I was swarmed by the entire group of 18 as I entered the room inquiring about Donna’s condition. I explained that I was concerned because it appeared as though she had not eaten anything and she was sleeping very deeply.
When I finished my meal, I was followed to our room by Karen, the nurse practitioner, Laurie, also a nurse, Beverly, Lily, Sandy, the tour organizer, Ahmed, our Egyptian tour leader and Greg, Sandy’s husband.
They roused Donna from her sleep, but she appeared to be somewhat incoherent and was exhibited obvious signs of having a fever. Despite strong protests from Donna, we determined that we needed to call a doctor to check out her condition. It wasn’t normal for her to stay in bed and sleep for almost three days straight. It wasn’t normal for her to not eat for almost three days.
Within 45 minutes the doctor and an ambulance crew was knocking on our door. Immediately, their thermometer revealed that she had a temperature of over 102 degrees. On top of that, her blood pressure was dangerously elevated as was her blood sugar.
Sounding the alarm, the doctor insisted that she be moved to the local hospital immediately. He told me her symptoms were not unusual, but could be a function of her age. I told him I didn’t understand what he was telling me as Donna quietly sobbed while repeating “I’m scared. I’m scared.” He insisted it was because of her age that she had both elevated blood sugar readings as well as a troubling blood pressure readings.
Sandy, Greg and Ahmed went to the hospital while I remained behind contacting her family stateside.
The following morning Sandy, Greg, Ahmed and I went to the hospital. The Egyptian doctor wanted to speak with Donna’s primary physician, but that was complicated by the nine hour difference in time. Between calls to her Northwestern University doctor, I’d ask to see Donna, but I was told that she was on a ventilator and unable to speak. Finally, after no less than 14 calls to Chicago, I made contact with Donna’s doctor who after some convincing agreed to contact the Egyptian medical care team. I made one final request to visit Donna but was denied, so our group returned to our hotel in time for dinner.
The enthusiasm of the group and concern for Donna was heightened when I entered the dining room. I must have answered the question “How’s she doing?” almost a dozen times. I was numb by the events of the past 18 hours and found it difficult to answer, but managed to simply say “OK.”
After a few spoonsful, I returned to my room to get some rest. I laid down for a few moments and was drifting off to sleep. My mind had just begun to stop racing when the knock came. It was Greg. I don’t remember much of what he said other than “Donna didn’t make it.”
Numbness and pain took over my body as the tears flowed from my eyes. But that was very short lived as Greg went on to tell me that the Arabic-speaking Hurgada police needed to speak with me and were coming to pick me up. They needed to question me about what I had noticed leading up to her hospitalization. They needed to know about her previous medical condition. They wanted to know about her medications. They were needing to know a lot! I could answer some of their questions, but not all.
The following day brought on conversations and encounters with the U.S.State Department, who tasked me with remaining in Egypt until her body could be returned stateside and the Egyptian prosecutors, who treated me as if I were responsible for her death. No one knew at the time, but Donna was exhibiting all the classic signs of Covid 19 and that it was Covid that had taken her. When I made Donna’s death known to the group, the screams and shrieks that emanated from the group as Greg announced our common loss, will stay with me forever.
I remember telling the group that I appreciated their support and comfort as my body radiated a range of symptoms and emotions from numbness to fear, shock to confusion, bewilderment to determination, hurt and pain, but I didn’t allow myself to show it at that critical moment. Most of all I felt vulnerable and exposed in spite of all their love.
I then had to return to the local authorities who hit me with a series of rapid fire questions in Arabic for almost four hours Ahmed, our tour guide, served as my interpreter. On the way back to the group he confided that he had never been more afraid in his life. After all, if by chance the autocratic Egyptians didn’t care for any or all of my answers, I could potentially spend my remaining years in a women’s prison.
The State Department relented and told me I need not stay there to accompany her body because it could be up to 30 days delay dealing with the Egyptians. Although Donna was going to stay with me “for as long as it took;” however, I was not able to stay for the addition 24 days it took to bring her home to Chicago.
There were several more days remaining on our “Trip of a Lifetime.” Cairo. Alexandria. I remember none of it.